Former President George H.W. Bush has loved dogs since he was a boy and now he has a new man's best friend — a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever from Long Island.
The service dog, named Sully, arrived this week at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the former president was thrilled, said Evan Sisley, Bush’s personal aide.
“Welcome home,” Bush said as the dog walked into the room, according to Sisley.
Sully was bred and trained by America’s VetDogs in Smithtown, which provides service dogs to veterans and first responders with disabilities, as well as guide dogs for people with vision problems.
Bush, who celebrated his 94th birthday on June 12, has used a wheelchair and an electric scooter since he was diagnosed a half-dozen years ago with vascular parkinsonism, which mimics many symptons of Parkinson's disease.
For much of the time, Bush has aides who help him around the house. Sully will step in when the president is alone — opening doors, fetching things accidentally dropped and finding a human if he can't handle the situation.
More than anything, Sully provides Bush with companionship.
“It helps him gain some additional independence at 94,” Sisley said.
Right away, the dog put a smile on the face of the former chief executive, Sisley said, and they have become fast friends. Sully likes to put his head in Bush's lap. The former president enjoys watching his pooch play with his toys on the floor.
“He’s already acting like he’s been here a month,” Sisley said.
Bush has had a rough go so far this year. His wife of 73 years, former first lady Barbara Bush, died in April, and the former president has been in and out of the hospital with low blood pressure and pneumonia.
“It’s a welcome distraction,” Sisley said of Sully. “He’s alleviating the strain.”
Bush's aides contacted America's VetDogs through Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. The nonprofit group provides the hospital with a dog that goes room to room cheering up patients.
Since its founding in 2003, America's VetDogs has provided more than 700 service dogs to veterans. The Bush request, though, was "a special call,” said John Miller, president of America's VetDogs.
Already, the former president has christened Sully a full-fledged member of the family, giving him the name of Sully H.W. Bush. The dog even has his own Instagram page, @SullyHWBush. Bush's aides plan to post a photo of him every day.
During their time in the White House, the Bushes had an English springer spaniel named Millie. The former first lady wrote a book about Millie's adventures in Washington, which became a best-seller.
Sully is named for the former airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, who safely landed a damaged passenger jet on the Hudson River in 2009.
The dog spent his first two months on Long Island, and then headed off to a puppy program in a Maryland prison, where he learned the three foundations of service dog tasks: retrieve, tug and push. Sully returned to the Island in November for more formal training.
A team with America’s VetDogs accompanied Sully to Kennebunkport, where they are helping the dog adjust to his new surroundings.
“He’s getting rave reviews,” Miller said.
Sully showed his stuff when Bush received a visit Monday from former President Bill Clinton. Clinton, who had a chocolate Lab named Buddy during his time in office, immediately took to Sully. A photo posted on Twitter shows Sully lounging at the feet of the two former world leaders.
“They talked about how wonderfully trained and polite he was,” Sisley said, “and how nice it is to have a dog.”
America’s VetDogs provides service dogs free to veterans and first responders; the cost to raise, train and place a service dog can reach $50,000, Miller said.
Helping defray the agency's expenses is the Sayville-based Friends of America’s VetDogs. The group's leader said he hopes Sully raises awareness about service dogs.
"We help veterans. The fact is that this veteran happens to be a past president of the United States," said Cliff Miller, 67, of Sayville. "But he is also a veteran in need."